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By: Mia Watson on 1/21/2020

Vermont Housing Finance Agency (VHFA) has released its 2019 Annual Report. This year VHFA celebrated its 45th annniversary of financing and promoting affordable housing opportunities for low- and moderate-income Vermonters. Since it opened, the Agency has helped approximately 29,000 Vermont households with affordable mortgages and financed the development of approximately 8,800 affordable rental apartments. 

In fiscal year 2019, VHFA financed $80 million in home mortgages to help 481 households move into their own homes. 87 percent of VHFA borrowers were first-time homebuyers, and 68 percent received down payment assistance. VHFA also received an award this year for pioneering the use of state tax credits for down payment assistance at a national housing conference.

VHFA was again the single largest source of funding for affordable rental housing development in the state. Of the new rental housing that VHFA funded in FY19, the federal and state tax credits and loans awarded by the Agency supported an average of 72 percent of total project costs. VHFA awarded $33 million in tax credits and $18 million in loans to projects that created or rehabilitated 477 apartments across the state. 7,987 Vermonters currently live in apartments funded by the Agency, and VHFA staff physically inspected over 450 apartments this past year to monitor program compliance, property maintenance, and safety and affordability for residents. 

Despite these successes, there is still much work to be done. 25 percent of Vermont renters pay over half their income in rent, making it difficult to afford other basic expenses like food and transportation. A Vermont worker would need to earn $18.18 per hour to afford an average one bedroom apartment, yet the average renter earns just $13.40 per hour. Prospective homebuyers are also struggling to afford Vermont's high home prices. 60 percent of recent Vermont graduates have student loans, with an average $29,656 in debt, making it hard to save up to purchase their first homes without help. VHFA will continue to work towards a safe, decent, and affordable home for all Vermonters. 

Read the full 2019 Annual Report to learn more about VHFA's work this past year.

By: Mia Watson on 1/17/2020

Strong financial performance contributed to a rating upgrade from AA to AA+ for Vermont Housing Finance Agency (VHFA)'s multiple purpose bonds from Fitch Ratings last week. AA+ is the second highest possible rating from Fitch. The rating applies to all outstanding long-term debt under the multiple purpose program and should help lower the cost of affordable housing financing through VHFA.

VHFA’s Executive Director Maura Collins praised the ratings change, remarking, “This announcement from Fitch reflects increasing confidence in the strength and stability of VHFA’s bond offerings, and the long-term stewardship of the agency’s financials. The upgraded rating will allow the Agency to give more Vermonters access to safe and affordable homes. ”

VHFA sells bonds to investors to raise funds for its affordable homeownership mortgage program and its loans to affordable rental housing developers. The upgraded rating will reduce the Agency’s cost to issue bonds. The savings from these reduced costs will be passed on to VHFA borrowers, allowing more resources to flow towards VHFA’s rental and homeownership programs.

The announcement from Fitch cited several factors leading to the ratings upgrade, including strengthened asset quality, strong cash flow and asset parity, continued financial strength and sound portfolio performance.

VHFA currently anticipates that its next multiple purpose bond sale will take place in February.

Pictured: Jack LeClerc, who received a VHFA mortgage with down payment assistance.  VHFA’s homeownership programs are funded through the Agency’s sale of multiple purpose bonds.

By: Maura Collins on 1/16/2020

This commentary by VHFA Executive Director Maura Collins appeared recently in VTDigger

As the start of the 2020 U.S. census nears, it is important to understand its immense impact on our daily lives and why an accurate count of our nation’s population is so important.

The founders of our country thought that the census was so essential that they included it in the Constitution. A census must be conducted every ten years to count each person living in the country, and congressional representation and taxes are allocated based on the results. Census counts have a significant impact on our political landscape, with the shape of congressional districts and the number of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives for each state and electoral votes subject to the results.

In addition, Vermont receives over $2.5 billion each year in federal funds allocated based on census data.  With $97 million spent on housing and community development programs, other census-based federal funding pays for education, public health, infrastructure and more.

The first decennial census – so named because of its ten-year cycle - was conducted in 1790 by U.S. Marshals. It wasn’t until 1902 that the U.S. Census Bureau was created to oversee the decennial census and tabulate its data. For the 2020 census, the Census Bureau will hire almost half a million temporary workers to carry out the count. For the first time, it will allow all households to respond online or by phone, although paper forms will still be available.

Over time, the Census Bureau’s mission expanded to collect more and more information. Between 1970 and 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau used two different questionnaires: the so-called ‘long-form’ and ‘short-form’ census. In 2005, the Bureau introduced the American Community Survey (ACS) to replace the longer questionnaire and give us detailed information about our ages, incomes, family type and homes. The ACS is conducted continuously with smaller sample groups of households and new data is available every year.

The 2020 decennial census will involve a single short questionnaire consisting of just seven questions. In addition to counting the number of people, also it will ask about age, race, gender, marital status and homeownership.

Although the ACS gathers some of the same information as the census, only a small sample of people answer it, so the data it generates are estimates and not a complete count. While the Census Bureau strives to make the ACS estimates as accurate as possible, there can be large margins of error, especially in Vermont’s smaller towns and villages. The decennial census is one of few opportunities to gain basic information about every household in the country. This information is used by an enormous number of diverse groups, including government agencies, non-profits, businesses, community organizers and academic researchers.

The 2020 census has experienced unusual controversy this year due to the proposed addition of a question on citizenship status. Citizenship questions had not appeared on the short version of the decennial census questionnaire since 1950, although they are currently asked on ACS surveys. Research and test surveys conducted by the Census Bureau suggest that immigrants and people who are members of minority groups might respond incorrectly to these questions or refuse to respond the census altogether, potentially reducing participation by 9 million households. The questions have been withdrawn from the 2020 Census following a Supreme Court decision, but many advocates worry that lingering concerns about confidentiality and government use of personal data could reduce participation in the Census. 

Even without the citizenship question, surveying every American household is an immense technical challenge. Complicating matters are significant cuts in recent years to the Census Bureau’s budget and its difficulty in attracting temporary workers in an economy with low unemployment. This is of great concern to many communities, who may miss out on much-needed federal funding or may lose representation in Congress if their population is undercounted. One report found that for every person not counted by the 2020 Census, Vermont would lose $2,300 in federal funding. In response, many Vermont cities and towns are forming Complete Count Committees to increase awareness and motivate residents to respond to the 2020 Census.

The Census is essential for guaranteeing equal representation in our government. It is every Vermonter’s both right and civic responsibility to be counted.


By: Mia Watson on 1/8/2020

The Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston (FHLBB) is inviting the Vermont affordable housing community to attend an upcoming listening session for its Affordable Housing Program (AHP). The program awards approximately $20.7 million in grants and low-interest loans through member institutions to organizations promoting homeownership and rental housing opportunities for low income households. Among the recent Vermont projects that have received funding through this program are Lake Paran, an affordable rental housing development in Shaftsbury, Vermont, which began construction this past October.

FHLBB is seeking input on Vermont community housing needs, the AHP awards process and how the program can better promote economic development, community
revitalization, health and climate resiliency. 

The working group session and luncheon will be held on February 18, 2020 from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m at Capitol Plaza, 100 State Street, Montpelier, VT. Registration via FHLBB's website is required. Space is limited to 50 attendees.

By: Mia Watson on 1/6/2020

VHFA Executive Director Maura Collins
VHFA Executive Director Maura Collins

VHFA Executive Director Maura Collins was interviewed by Darryl Hicks for the December issue of Tax Credit Advisor, a leading industry publication focused on the development and financing of subsidized housing. The interview highlighted Collin’s new role as Executive Director and discussed her future plans for the Agency.

Excerpts from the interview are reprinted below:

Tax Credit Advisor: You filled some big shoes when you replaced Sarah Carpenter. What were your goals for 2019?

Maura Collins: This year was more than just the turnover of our executive director. We knew that our chief financial officer and IT director would be retiring. Then two of our multifamily underwriters moved out of the state for personal reasons. My goals were focused on building a strong, visionary and innovative team that would set us up for success over the long-term. I am proud to say we've done that. We are fully staffed. Our team has a wide spectrum of experience with technical and analytical aptitude and big picture community development thinking. I am very proud of the high-quality team that we have. As I look towards 2020, we're embarking on a strategic planning initiative that will help us look out over the next three years and help us leverage our unique offerings to borrowers.

Tax Credit Advisor: Have you brought a different leadership style to VHFA?

Maura Collins: I've been at VHFA for 17 years. I agreed with much of what Sarah did, so in many ways things haven't changed. Stylistically, I continually promote our mission. It is at the forefront of all my messaging. Our mission statement is printed on the wall of our conference room. I start all staff meetings and board meetings with a 'mission moment' that puts a face on the work that we do out in the community and centers us and reminds us of why we do what we do. I've also started a weekly video to stay connected with staff. It's a five- to six-minute video where I talk about VHFA's work. I have the privilege of traveling across the state and seeing some of our work in action. I bring that back to the folks who may not leave the office as much. I am trying to break down silos and remind people about the important work that we're all doing and connect them with that mission.

Tax Credit Advisor: Media coverage of the affordable housing crisis is centered on the most populated states and urban centers, while little attention is paid to rural America. How would you describe the housing situation in Vermont?

Maura Collins: We're seeing the same housing shortages that are prevalent on both coasts. It is regional within our state, like it is with most states. In our downtowns, we see a lack of units that is not keeping up with demand. There are various estimates about how many thousands of units are needed statewide and in each region. Half of our renters are cost-burdened and most of the waiting lists for rental assistance are closed. In Burlington, there were eight times as many applications for affordable housing compared to the number of available units. There absolutely is a need to construct more affordable housing, both rental and entry-level homeownership. In some of our rural areas, what we see as a constraint is the quality of housing. There may be an adequate number of units, but some are uninhabitable. Vermont and Maine have the highest proportions of seasonal and vacation homes. Sometimes it may appear that we have enough structures in a community, only to learn that they are not available for Vermonters to live in year-round. Employers constantly tell us that the lack of affordable housing impacts their ability to attract and retain workers. With short-term rentals really taking off, this is an area we've been looking at. We've studied the impact of the vacation home market for many years, but now I think Vermonters are looking for more policy solutions around short-term rentals, so that we can meet the housing needs of workers and Vermonters who live here.

Tax Credit Advisor: What are your biggest obstacles to increasing the supply of affordable housing in Vermont?

Maura Collins: The biggest obstacle is the lack of capital. Because of our small population, we get small-state minimums for federal funding sources that are used to create and preserve affordable housing. The other driving forces that push investing in affordable housing, most notably banks' Community Reinvestment Act requirements, are less of a motivation in Vermont. We don't have that many big banks domiciled here. We are constantly trying to navigate the realities of our small scale. Housing developments here are smaller, so we don't get the economies of scale. VHFA needs to be nimble and creative in leveraging the limited resources we have to increase affordable housing under that reality.

Tax Credit Advisor: Affordable housing advocates and conservationists are two powerful groups in Vermont that have not always seen eye to eye on how to build more affordable housing. How are you involving these two groups in your policymaking?

Maura Collins: There have been policy struggles between the two groups. If you imagine a parcel of land, and the question becomes are we going to conserve it or develop it, you can only do one. In the late 80s, the legislature created by statute an organization called the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB), which has a dual mission of serving conservation and affordable housing efforts. It has brought these two interests together and has been successful and won various awards. It has promoted smart growth models that the rest of the nation has only woken up to more recently. We've been able to protect our landscapes - which is so important to Vermonters and the people who vacation here -while also trying to meet the state's housing needs. At the same time that VHCB was created, the state formed a Housing and Conservation Trust Fund (HCTF) that provides the bulk of the funds used for housing and conservation efforts. The director of VHCB sits on my board and I sit on his board. We not only partner on policy initiatives but on funding affordable housing development.

Tax Credit Advisor: Zoning for Great Neighborhoods was created to help Vermont's towns meet their housing needs. Do you see this program and other efforts to modernize Vermont's zoning laws as key to your work at VHFA?

Maura Collins: Absolutely. We all know that there's not enough federal resources to meet the housing needs in our state. We do our best to allocate resources at the state level, but if there are not communities set up to welcome housing locally, then those resources and all those efforts fall flat. Part of the cost of homebuilding is due to local zoning and land-use requirements. The Zoning for Great Neighborhoods program identifies zoning adjustments that towns can make to directly improve affordability and availability of homes built in downtown areas. Everything we do in Vermont is underscored by this policy goal of supporting smart growth. While changing the regulations is important, the Zoning for Great Neighborhoods project gives our state the platform to have an open discussion about how we need to continue to be competitive and maintain our population and grow in the 21st century. Our state is not always viewed as accessible and most would say it's not affordable. A key to overcoming that reality and perception is to ensure that we're allowing for community development and housing construction in places where it makes sense. Each Vermont community, no matter how rural or urban, needs to be part of the solution if we're to be successful.

Tax Credit Advisor: Given the rising costs of construction, what has the Vermont legislature done (or not done) to provide more public funding to finance affordable housing deals?

Maura Collins: Our legislature has done several things to fund affordable housing. In 2018, VHFA issued a $37 million housing bond on behalf of the state. Almost all the proceeds have been awarded and are projected to create 700 new units of affordable housing. That was a huge investment made by the state. Some lawmakers are considering whether Vermont should issue another bond. We've had a state affordable housing tax credit program since 2000 that works well with the Federal LIHTC. It's a five-year tax credit that funds both rental housing and homeownership opportunities, including down payment assistance for first-time homebuyers. While the legislature has done a lot, there's more that needs to be done.

Tax Credit Advisor: What are your long-term plans for VHFA?

Maura Collins: VHFA will be focused on creating better partnerships and offering more conducive environments for developers and investments that lead to the development of more affordable housing in Vermont.